I’m a Dietitian and I Changed My Mind About Sugar in My Kids’ Lunch

updated Jun 8, 2019
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Being a mother, registered dietitian, and food writer, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how best to feed kids. With my own three daughters, I’ve managed certain aspects of feeding them successfully (they’re enthusiastic vegetable eaters) and others less gracefully (I may or may not sometimes trade lollipops for good behavior).

Like all aspects of parenting, it took me a while to find my feet in the realm of feeding a family. When my girls were tiny, I found the parade of statistics on obesity and overconsumption of sugar to be pretty darn alarming (comparisons of sugar to cocaine reverberated through my brain). As a nutrition professional, it was almost as though I knew too much and responded by being too restrictive, particularly about sugar.

But I quickly learned that small humans are no different than big humans. Tell us we can’t have something, and that’s all we can think about.

By the time my oldest hit preschool, I began to lighten up and trust my kids to enjoy sweets within a healthy diet. I did my best to pile their plates with nutrient-rich foods, but also brought them into the kitchen to bake cupcakes and included treats in their packed lunches.

The Real Sugar Problem

The truth is, when it comes to school lunch, I’m less concerned about a homemade chocolate chip cookie than I am about some of the “healthy” foods marketed for kids that have a boatload of sugar. Certain brands of fruit-flavored yogurt come to mind, along with plenty of granola bars, flavored milks, juice drinks, sports drinks, and fruit snacks. Replace these with more wholesome options, and you’ll find some wiggle room for real treats.

When I wrote my first cookbook, Best Lunch Box Ever, I made a conscious decision to include a Goodies chapter. The idea being that, if you load up lunches with vegetables, fruits, grains, protein sources, and other whole foods, you can tuck in treats here and there.

I happen to think that showing kids what it means to enjoy sweets in the context of a healthy meal will help them navigate this sort of balancing act going forward. It’s also plainly unwise to put sugar on a pedestal as a forbidden fruit. Do that and your kids will start sniffing around in their friends’ lunch boxes for the cookies they’re not allowed to have.

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

A Dietitian’s Tips for (Wisely) Including Sugar

All that being said, I do have a few thoughts on how to manage lunch box treats.

  1. Keep portions in check. Particularly with younger kids who have smaller tanks, make the sure the size of the snack is moderate. A couple of small cookies, a square of dark chocolate, or a mini cupcake can add enough fun to a lunch without overloading kids with sugar.
  2. Read the whole ingredient list. When buying goodies from the grocery store, don’t just scan for sugar; read the whole ingredient list and the nutrition label to make sure they’re not entirely full of other ingredients beyond sugar that your kids may be sensitive to. I especially avoid anything artificial, particularly artificial colors, which are linked to attention problems in some children.
  3. Add nutrition where you can. Aim for treats that deliver good nutrition along with good taste. A small container of chocolate pudding, for example, contains protein and calcium. Berries topped with whipped cream add vitamin C. Dark chocolate is a known antioxidant. And baked goods made with whole grains mean more fiber.
  4. Avoid “hidden” sugars. If you’re adding treats to school lunch, be especially mindful not to pack a lot of sugar elsewhere. Rely on low- or no-sugar yogurt, pack water instead of sugary drinks, and include whole fruit instead of fruit-flavored snacks.

5 Lunch Box Treats I Can Get Behind

What do you think? Discuss in the comments below!